A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness

Title: A Discovery of Witches, released Feb 8, 2011, 592 pages

Author: Deborah Harkness

Redonk Nutshell: Twilight for smart people

Official Synopsis: A richly inventive novel about a centuries-old vampire, a spellbound witch, and the mysterious manuscript that draws them together. Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell. Debut novelist Deborah Harkness has crafted a mesmerizing and addictive read, equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense. Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos.

A Discovery of Witches has been on the NY Times bestseller’s list for four weeks now (since it’s February release).  I had seen it pop up a few times while I was browsing on Barnes & Noble’s website, though it hadn’t initially appealed to me.  It was upon my husband’s suggestion that I picked it up – he listens to the NY Times book podcast and thought of me when they reviewed it.

Going into this book, I knew nothing about the premise or the author (besides the synopsis of course).  I saw it had gotten rave reviews on both B&N and Amazon, so I figured it’d be a good book to add to my conquests.  It took me several days to read, unlike most romance novels that I can breeze through in a day or so.  When I finished, I had to stew over it a bit until I felt comfortable enough to write a review of it.

Right off the bat, A Discovery of Witches is going to draw comparisons to Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight Saga, if only for two reasons: vampires and illicit love. Matthew is incredibly protective of Diana, just as Edward is to Bella, even to the point of driving the reader nuts.  Besides these similarities, the novels are apples and oranges.  Witches is written by an author who is an accomplished historian and professor, and it’s obvious from the first several pages of exposition about The Bodleian that she has drawn from actual experience. There are pros and cons to this – Harkness’s descriptions of Oxford, her in depth explanations of DNA, alchemy, and the history of each, are fascinating.  That is if you can stick through it.  I was very intrigued by it, but there were several times where I caught myself not really thinking about what the characters were explaining.  This is a cerebral read, one that requires some effort on the reader’s part to follow the scientific and historic chain of events.

Witches is Deborah Harkness’s first fiction publication, but she’s no stranger to the trade.  She’s published two non-fiction works, both dealing with the history of magic and the revolution of science.  She’s received several fellowships as well as accolades from many societies across the world.  She’s a professor at the University of Southern California and teaches both the European history and the history of science.  In other words, she knows her stuff.  I knew nothing of Harkness going into the book, but about a quarter of the way through I concluded that this author had to be a professor of some sort.  In fact, I’m convinced that the main character, Doctor Diana Bishop, is more or less an incarnation of Harkness.

My personal feelings on this are conflicted.  I consider myself a history geek.  I love history.  It’s ultimately why I ‘m continually drawn to the same kinds of romance novels.  I don’t mind that Harkness pulled so much inspiration from herself into her main character.  As a dabbler in writing, I do the same for my own heroines, each possessing a degree of myself in them.  It’s the tone of the book that turned me off.  The only word I can think that properly conveys it is “dry.”  I didn’t find it sensual or epically romantic.  There is romance, however, and it’s not bad.  It’s just not…moving.  There are authors I’ve read who manage to write stories so sensual that I physically react to them.  Now, when I say sensual I don’t necessarily mean sexual.  I mean an emotional connection so strong it elicits a physical reaction.  I didn’t get this from Diana and Matthew.  I understood why they were attracted to one another; I understood that they had feelings for each other; I understood why they went from strangers to spouses in a matter of weeks;  but I didn’t feel it. Again, it was cerebral, not physical

That in a nutshell is how A Discovery of Witches felt to me.  Cerebral but not emotional. I didn’t think it was a bad book.  No.  In fact, the world that Harkness creates is wonderfully magical.  The characters are extremely well drawn out, and the premise is unbelievably bullet proof.  What I have a hard time understanding is why everyone is raving about it.  Yeah, it’s good but it didn’t rock my world.  In fact, the ending was so disappointing I nearly threw it out the window.  NOTE: this is a series  I didn’t see that anywhere in writing, and I expected this puppy to wrap up neatly and cleanly by the end of it’s 500+ pages.  Not. The. Case.  Cliffhanger of epic proportions alert. It had cool factor but left me incredibly disappointed at the same time.

In summary, I like it but wasn’t impressed by it.  I’m not even sure I’ll pick up the sequels when they come out.  I don’t regret reading it, but I’m still sort of scratching my head at what on earth the appeal is.

What I loved about this book: the world building; the witches, vampires and daemons are fascinating; also, I really was intrigued with the details of Oxford and its libraries

What I didn’t like: I wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters

Rating: C

Romance: 2/5         Raunch: 0/5

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2 comments

  1. I so agree on the emotional distance throughout the novel. What should be a hot-hot-hot romance with this commanding, brooding, powerful vampire and wicked smart, complex witch is instead like reading a manual on car repair. The storyline is so interesting and keeps it moving along, and I probably will pick up the next two for sake of curiosity.

    Also, what is with vampires and the obedience thing? Since when did all vampires subscribe to Biblical Complementarianism, that their wives/lovers have to be these submissive, obedient, compliant creatures? GAH! I mean, I like a little hot domination as much as the next girl, but come on!

  2. The obedience thing did get to me but I have to say that I loved this book. I loved the history, the descriptions of science, history, alchemy, ancient manuscripts. I was drooling over the library.
    I actually didn’t have a problem with the delayed gratification bit. I liked the connection between Diana and Matthew. It felt emotional as well as intellectual. Definitely more intellectual then anything but for me it worked and made sense.

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